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Wednesday, 16 August 1989
Page: 167


Senator BROWNHILL(4.35) —It is with pleasure that I rise to participate in this debate, which is a discussion of a matter of public importance in the following terms:

The record of the Hawke Labor Government in failing Australian women.

Obviously, it has hit a sore nerve because on the other side of the chamber people are getting rather excited about this debate, and I think that is very good.


Senator Hill —A deplorable record.


Senator BROWNHILL —That is right; it is a poor record of the Hawke Labor Government that has caused this debate to be brought on. In the time that I have available today I would like to concentrate my remarks on how the Hawke Labor Government has failed the rural women of Australia. While this Government has failed rural people in a most cynical and calculated manner, the group who take the greater share of this discrimination are in fact rural women. There are 1.8 million women living in rural Australia. While I live in rural Australia, I cannot profess to appreciate the isolation, the loneliness and the sheer hard slog that women in the inland of this country and even in western New South Wales live under. I live some 110 kilometres from a major rural city and some 50 kilometres from a country town, but I do understand some of the concerns that are being expressed here today.

Probably the three most important concerns for rural and regional Australians are our record interest rates, roads, and the increasing cost to the housewife, wherever she may be. In these three areas alone this Government, in last night's Budget, has done nothing. While the Treasurer might make a big splash about the $116m being spent on roads, that is not money that the Government has allocated for that purpose; it is money that almost entirely is coming out of fuel excise revenue, out of the pockets of the motorists, the people who live in the country and the city areas. On the question of interest rates, the attitude of the Treasurer (Mr Keating) appears to be, `Tough; sweat it out as best you can'. On inflation he says, `Let 'er rip'. These three issues alone have had an enormous impact on women living in rural areas. High interest rates for farmers have meant that wives are increasingly going off the farm to provide a cash flow to service interest debts. While outside careers might be the popular choice for city women, it is unbelievably harder for women in rural Australia to take a job off the farm. I will return to that point later.

A recent University of New England study of rural media advertisements concluded that the prevailing ideology in the country is that men are the real farmers and that women not only accept this but encourage the stereotype of themselves as homemakers. And they are. The women are a vital part of our community, because they help and encourage their male spouses, wherever they happen to be. This study covered 1,478 advertisements, and not one of them showed a woman doing a farm job. Yet a recent national survey of rural women commissioned by the Federal Government showed that 72 per cent of farm women do farm work. In fact, almost 70 per cent of farm wives are the farm's business managers-not a bad number. Additionally, more then 90 per cent of them do manual work on the farm, and for 5,400 farms women are the sole owners and managers.

For those women who have been forced to take work off the farm, the pressures have become enormous. They invariably do a day's work before they leave in the morning, often to travel a great distance over appalling roads; and at the end of the day their task is to buy the groceries or collect the children from the school before tackling the bad roads to go home again. Senator Bjelke-Petersen was saying to me only this morning that that is the place where women see the real inflation costs-when they go to buy their groceries and when they drive across the rural roads that are being neglected by this Government. This year, with the extended wet weather, of course, the roads in New South Wales are an absolute disgrace and a death trap. The Budget which was brought down last night gives no joy to people travelling on those roads.

The Federal Government has in recent years actually recognised that women living in rural Australia are disadvantaged. But what has it done? There have been surveys, studies and meetings, but that is all the Government has done: words and glossy brochures. Another glossy brochure came to the Senate today. When it comes to the hard cash and the real initiatives, the Government has done nothing. It has failed the women of Australia.

A report issued by the Federal Government in February last year and titled Life has never been easy attempted to portray life for women in rural Australia. The study involved some 14,000 women across Australia, questioned with the assistance of the Country Women's Association. The dominant theme of this study was that isolation, loneliness, lack of medical services and inadequate transport and communication were the key issues. An equal number of women suggested the biggest problems facing country women were the rural crisis, the high cost of living and running a farm. They listed as priorities roads and transport.

Of course, there are other issues, such as Sydney (Kingsford-Smith) Airport where the third runway should be put in to service the people of the rural communities. Women who send their children away to school and people who come to the country to visit women do not have a decent aeroplane service because this Government has neglected Sydney (Kingsford-Smith) Airport.

This report contains a litany of complaints, from rural women, mainly about telephone services-the difficulties of 21 sharing a party line; the cost of subscriber trunk dialling rates; the lack of radio and television services; and the difficulties of educating their children or themselves. The report showed that about half of rural women now work as wage or salary earners. For rural women volunteer workers are a necessary adjunct of their daily life. There is no local caterer for the clearing sales. Volunteers do it for fund-raising. Services such as meals on wheels, social workers and rape crisis centres do not exist in the country areas so rural women have to look after themselves.

The survey was greeted with much fanfare. Of course, there is always fanfare when the Government produces bits of papers. The Government has spent its money on publishing the report but spends nothing on the implementation of its recommendations. That is where this Government stands condemned: it spends plenty on words but nothing on actually putting them into practice.

In March of last year the Government published another report, Overcoming distance: Isolated rural women's access to TAFE across Australia. In launching the report, the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Kerin, said:

This is an important report. It contains recommendations that offer practical, cost effective solutions to overcoming the problems of isolation faced by women as well as men in country areas. While many of the problems faced by isolated women around Australia are similar, different solutions are often required.

They are fine words and enough to give one a great sense of expectation. A month later yet another report was issued titled A Fair Go: The Federal Government's Strategy for Rural Education and Training. It contained more fine words and led to further expectation. But this Government is still neglecting the people of rural Australia, especially the women. That is why honourable senators sitting on that side of the chamber stand condemned.

In a rather large document in the Budget Papers issued last night, Women's Budget Statement, at pages 23 and 24, we see more words, more reports and a notation that states:

A number of measures . . . will be taken within the existing policy and budgetary framework.

In other words, despite all the reports and studies, the only funding available will have to come from some other area of education already squeezed to the limit. I say, `Big deal, big failure by the Hawke Labor Government to the women of Australia'.

Rural education is one area that has had a raw deal for a very long time. One needs only to talk with Mrs Helen Withers from the Isolated Children's Parents Association to realise that for rural women with children things have got progressively worse over the past six years. In 1973, for example, an isolated children's allowance of approximately half the cost of average boarding fees was paid to parents to enable them to send their children away, especially for secondary education. Today, that fee is exactly the same but is now only 20 per cent of the boarding component for education.

This Government has neglected the people of rural Australia, especially the women. For years the Association has been trying to get tax deductability for governesses-a necessary addition to a rural family. The only alternative is to take the mother away from her outside farm duties to teach the children. Many families cannot afford a governess so the mother becomes the teacher. The children's education suffers accordingly when activities on the farm require her presence outside. There is no additional funding this year for equipment for teaching children at home; there is no assistance for travel when correspondence schools have their biannual get-togethers. In fact, one of the most common reasons that farm workers leave rural employment is lack of secondary education facilities. Again, there is nothing in this Budget for that-another failure for the women of rural Australia. The Gough Whitlam attitude-and I know that he did not care very much about the farm women-was that everyone had never had it so good, or words to that effect. That attitude is alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of those in the Labor Party today. They do not care about rural women. This Budget document-the yellow Women's Budget Statement-is evidence of that: two paragraphs full of platitudes and waffle and no substance. In fact, the Labor Party does not care about people generally, but especially the women of Australia.

The black hole of Australian poverty exists not in some run-down city ghetto or depressed industrial sector, but in the rural sector. Julian Cribb, the well-known rural writer, recently made the point that, of the 37 poorest electorates in Australia, 33 are in rural Australia. It is interesting that the Labor Party holds only 27 per cent of Australia's poorest electorates and 37 per cent of its wealthiest. That explains a great deal about why rural Australia is so neglected and so poor. The extent of rural poverty in country towns is largely hidden. It is normal for young people either to remain unemployed or to leave town to find work. Women have difficulty finding jobs in country areas, and this Government's policies of reducing country centres to ghost towns through squeezing small business is only making this situation much worse.

Another area that needs discussion is last night's decision on superannuation. Senator Patterson has already made remarks about this. While I applaud the Government's initiative in taking up some of the options outlined in our coalition policy which came out last year, especially in areas affecting women, it has done essentially nothing; and what it has done is not good enough. For example, the Labor Party policy enunciated last night said that a woman who is out of the work force for two years can maintain her superannuation contributions, but after that she cannot continue with her superannuation contribution. That means that after two years she is going to be forced back into the work force. I do not think that it is a good thing to be forced back into anything. Women are being discriminated against in that regard. Our policy says they can go out of the work force and they can make contributions for a lifetime.

Recent surveys into superannuation have found that most superannuation schemes do not appeal to women, because they depend on long and continuous service. Most working women have career breaks to have families and superannuation schemes do not cover such breaks. Our superannuation schemes will cover those breaks for those women who want to go out of the work force. If the Government is genuine about encouraging people to provide for their retirement, it ought to realise that women are a significant part of the work force. In fact, as at August 1988 there were some 2.5 million women in the work force and, of those, only 723,000-that is 28 per cent-had any kind of superannuation coverage.

Our superannuation policies do not discriminate against women, as the Labor Party's policies do. The Labor Party has failed the women of Australia. It has especially failed the rural women. It has taken no account of the enormous contribution they make to generating export income and the absolutely outstanding contribution they make to keeping home and family together and raising children. That is something that this Government-this Hawke Labor Government-stands condemned for. It does not care about the family; it does not care about the people who want to bring up their children in good surroundings and make sure that they have a good life ahead of themselves. It stands condemned for not caring about the women of Australia. This matter raised by Senator Newman earlier in the afternoon is something that I hope, if we were to divide on it, would be carried unanimously by this Government and this Party.